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iRobot’s next frontier is the lawn in your backyard

The Terra’s “geofencing” feature memorizes the owner’s yard, so the mower won’t run anywhere else.
The Terra’s “geofencing” feature memorizes the owner’s yard, so the mower won’t run anywhere else.(iRobot)

Bedford-based iRobot has sold millions of its automated indoor vacuum cleaners. Now the company is ready to play in the backyard, with a battery-powered robotic lawn mower called Terra.

Unlike other robot mowers, which require wires strung around the yard to guide them, Terra will use battery-powered radio beacons. At first use, a human uses a joystick controller to steer Terra around the yard, and the machine memorizes the positions of the radio beacons and generates a digital map of the cutting area.

From then on, iRobot says, Terra can be programmed to mow automatically at regular intervals, parking itself on its battery-charging station whenever it runs low on power.

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Chief executive Colin Angle predicted Terra will be so quiet it can operate at night without bothering the neighbors. It can be left outdoors in all kinds of weather, and there’s no point stealing it: Terra’s “geofencing” feature memorizes the owner’s yard, so the mower won’t run anywhere else.

”We’re going to do to lawn mowing what we’ve done to vacuuming,” Angle said.

The company plans to launch Terra in Germany first, with sales to begin by midyear.

Customers in the United States can sign up for a beta-test program sometime in the second half of 2019.

Angle would not reveal Terra’s price but said it will be “competitive” with prices of existing products — while offering better technology. Those other robot lawn mowers aren’t cheap, however, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $2,500.

Moreover, given the lukewarm sales of lawn-mowing robots that are already available, it’s an open question whether Terra will be nearly as popular as iRobot’s Roomba vacuums. Companies such as Honda and Husqvarna have been making robotic mowers for years and have achieved some success in Europe, but that’s not so in the United States.

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“They don’t get much use in North America,” said Dan Kara, vice president of robotics at WTWH Media, a Cleveland publisher of robotics industry trade journals. “We have this kind of suburban lawn culture where people actually like to mow their lawns.”

Even outside the United States, robot mowers are a niche market. The International Federation of Robotics estimates total worldwide sales of 160,000 in 2017.

The high prices may account for their limited appeal.

IRobot began tinkering with lawn-mowing robots in 2007, Angle said. But the company was put off by the challenges and decided to focus on the vacuum cleaner business. Now, he thinks iRobot has solved the major technical problems. One is not to have the mower make random movements that “would look like Van Gogh mowed your lawn,” Angle said.

Terra, he added, is designed to mow in neat, gridlike strips, just as a professional gardener would.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.